June 10, 2013
special report | DC Safety

Be safe ... everywhere

Be safe ... everywhere

If you have multiple warehouses and DCs, you'll want them all to be on the same page when it comes to safety. Here are some strategies for ensuring consistent compliance across your network.

By Toby Gooley

Warehouse A and Warehouse B are located on the outskirts of large population centers on opposite sides of the country. They operate the same number of shifts using similar equipment. They handle the same product mix in similar quantities, with similar throughput rates. In many respects, the two facilities are nearly identical. But there's one area where they diverge: Warehouse A has a much higher rate of accidents and "near misses" than Warehouse B. How could that be?

That's a vexing question for anyone who operates or uses multiple warehouses and distribution centers. And it's a question that must be answered, because it's in everyone's interest that all facilities in a network meet the same safety standards. When safety compliance is inconsistent, workers at different facilities are subjected to differing degrees of risk, regulatory compliance becomes spotty, service levels and insurance costs become unpredictable, and customers may lose confidence in the warehouse operator.

Those and other problems associated with inconsistent safety compliance can be prevented by following four basic steps: identify the conditions that are likely to create those inconsistencies; establish corporate standards and policies; effectively communicate those standards and policies to and within every facility; and hold people accountable for compliance. Here's advice from safety experts on how to do that.

Inconsistent safety compliance can easily develop when any of the following conditions exist in a warehouse or DC network:

  • Each warehouse is free to set its own safety standards and/or training policies
  • There is no one at the corporate level devoting most or all of his or her time to overseeing safety
  • Safety training for managers, supervisors, and employees is irregular or infrequent
  • Turnover among managers and supervisors is high
  • The network includes acquired companies with differing safety policies and practices
  • There are large-scale changes in staffing, such as when a facility moves to a new location or many temp workers are hired at one time.

Even when none of those conditions exists, the fact that different people in far-flung locations are involved can be a risk factor in itself. "It will quickly get inconsistent if you haven't focused on making it consistent," observes Dixie L. Brock, manager, Americas safety and claims for APL Logistics (APLL), which manages more than three dozen warehouses and DCs in North America.

That's why most companies that operate multiple warehouses have safety managers at the corporate level. Typically, these managers are responsible for safety policy, training, analysis, and enforcement. They work closely with company executives as well as with their insurance carriers and their legal and human resources departments.

Which safety standards they adopt is largely determined by regulatory requirements, such as those set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). There is no flexibility where regulations are concerned, says Jeff Tanner, vice president of risk management for Kenco, which operates 110 warehouses and DCs in the U.S. and Canada. But in some other regards, warehouse operators can adapt their safety policies and standards to their own circumstances, he says. For instance, a pharmaceutical facility with high-speed conveyors will have some safety policies that would be irrelevant to a warehouse that handles appliances with forklifts.

Some flexibility is also necessary to account for changes and variations in the scope of work, says Craig Bollinger, senior vice president, risk management for NFI, a third-party logistics company that operates 71 facilities in the U.S. and Canada. "If you're doing a special project for a customer, your policies have to be flexible enough that you can revise your [standard operating procedure] to reflect the temporary change in workflow and in the workforce [while still maintaining safety standards]," he says.

Ensuring consistent safety compliance requires not just standardized information but also standardized methods of communication. The safety experts interviewed for this article provide each of the facilities their companies manage—whether owned, leased, or belonging to a customer—with manuals that document safety policies, standards, and procedures. These books (whether in print or electronic form) are updated as necessary and typically include addenda that lay out location-specific procedures.

Regularly scheduled training on a specified topic at every facility is a must. Many companies, including NFI and Kenco, conduct mandatory monthly training sessions; most of the topics are dictated by OSHA requirements, supplemented with refreshers on other subjects the companies deem important. APLL's Brock sends out a training module every month but usually does not set the topics in advance. Instead, she reviews safety data from all of the company's sites and chooses subjects based on what she sees. For example, a rise in ergonomic incidents among temp workers prompted a training module on ergonomic best practices. She also chooses topics based on regulatory requirements or even seasonal criteria, such as hurricane and tornado preparedness in the spring and ways to avoid heat stress in early summer.

Establishing a communication hierarchy—starting with the corporate safety manager and moving down to regional managers, general managers, supervisors, and other local safety personnel—helps to ensure that consistent information will make its way to every worker. Regularly scheduled conference calls facilitate planning and information sharing among trainers. Video conferencing and webcasts can be especially effective tools for training the trainers because they allow people in multiple locations to see, hear, and discuss the same information simultaneously.

As for who should conduct the training, some companies make that part of the warehouse manager's or supervisor's job, while others appoint on-site or regional safety officers. NFI, for instance, uses a multilayered approach, beginning with supervisors discussing safety at the start of every shift. That's followed by weekly meetings for all employees, in which supervisors and managers discuss current safety issues and other matters directly affecting associates. APLL, meanwhile, expects general managers to be knowledgeable about safety but has front-line supervisors train warehouse associates.

Kenco requires each of its facilities to designate a "safety advocate" who is a front-line supervisor and is responsible for training the warehouse associates as well as other safety-related tasks. Each local advocate reports to a divisional safety advocate who oversees multiple facilities. Front-line supervisors should always exhibit "sincere, visible, and observable safety efforts"—otherwise safety compliance among their subordinates will suffer, Tanner says. "Safety does not come naturally—it's a learned behavior. Everything you say and do—or don't say or do—sends a message to employees."

Regardless of who conducts the training, they will need to document what they did, when they did it, and who attended the sessions. Corporate safety managers can then review the reports and determine whether all sites are meeting the training requirements.

The final component of multifacility safety compliance is accountability—holding people responsible for meeting established safety standards and following corporate policies. Audits are the most common means of accomplishing this; they reveal shortcomings and help facilities develop a list of corrective actions that will bring them up to snuff.

Brock suggests sending monthly safety training and incident reports to warehouse managers and supervisors. Her reports include information for all facilities, such as OSHA-reportable incidents, "near misses" (incidents that did not require an OSHA report), and the percentage of scheduled training sessions completed, among other data. Showing managers and supervisors not just how their own facilities are doing but also how their peers are performing provides a powerful incentive to keep up with the leaders.

Tanner emphasizes the need to keep safety front of mind no matter what else may be going on in the operation. "Safety should be a culture, not just the topic of the day," he says. "It has to be treated on the same level as other key concerns, like profitability, quality, production, and productivity," he asserts. If it isn't, problems in those and other critical business areas can cause you to "take your eye off the safety ball," he says.

One way to ensure a continuing focus on safety is to make facility safety performance a key metric in a warehouse manager's annual review, says NFI's Bollinger. At NFI, he notes, a warehouse's annual workers compensation allocation is based on its safety record, with consequent effects on its profit margin.

Finally, it's impossible to achieve consistent safety compliance if it's not a high priority for everyone from the executive suite on down. "If safety isn't on the boss's priority list, it's much harder for a supervisor or general manager to [obtain] the time and resources they need to be effective at it," Brock says.

About the Author

Toby Gooley
Contributing Editor
Contributing Editor Toby Gooley is a freelance writer and editor specializing in supply chain, logistics, material handling, and international trade. She previously was Senior Editor at DC VELOCITY and Editor of DCV's sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. Prior to joining AGiLE Business Media in 2007, she spent 20 years at Logistics Management magazine as Managing Editor and Senior Editor covering international trade and transportation. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

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